For millions of years, the waterway that today bisects northern Wyoming and southern Montana flowed north, carving a deep canyon that made interacting with the river dangerous for the people who later would inhabit the river’s banks. Yet the Bighorn River became downright friendly to travelers and locals once the Yellowtail Dam was built in 1968, near Fort Smith, Mont.
In addition to providing hydroelectric power, doling out water for irrigation and controlling floods, the dam created 71-mile-long Bighorn Lake, the focal point of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The region nearly overflows with scenery and outdoor activities, all designed for visitors to enjoy.
Montana and Wyoming have long been known as prime RV destinations, but during their explorations of the big-name attractions in the region visitors may be tempted to skip Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area. This would be a mistake, particularly to fans of wildlife, since black bears, wild horses, mountain lions, mule deer and the namesake bighorn sheep inhabit the region, and more than 200 species of birds either live there or pass through.
The lake and river are, of course, the main attractions. Afterbay Campground, with its 28 sites on the south shore of the afterbay near Fort Smith, makes for a good base from which to explore. Boating of every kind is immensely popular on Bighorn Lake since the waterway features numerous coves to be explored by powerboats, canoes and kayaks.
Anglers plying either Bighorn Lake or the Bighorn River will likely be awed by the possibilities: Yellow perch, carp, catfish, ling, crappie, walleye and brown and rainbow trout all inhabit Bighorn Lake. The Bighorn River is also known as a world-class trout fishery, anglers have caught 38 species of fish in the river. This abundance means than an angler’s biggest problem in the region will be deciding which species to target.
Amateur geologists should not miss the ridge at Horseshoe Bend, where five distinct rock layers are exposed. And four visitor centers exist within the recreation area, spread out for easy access.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area:
(406) 666-2412, www.nps.gov/bica